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Despite limitations, 3D and AR are creating new realities in retail

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In North America, shoppers are increasingly turning to online orders to buy their products.

National postal services have seen a significant uptick in parcel volumes; so many that the number matches those sent during the Christmas surge — minus the wrapping paper. But although the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for online shopping, it’s part of a continuing trend.

The online sector has slowly been eating up the percentage of sales from retail stores. Virtual shopping’s total share of the global market has doubled between 2015 and 2019, with the U.S. Department of Commerce reporting that online retail sales overtook general merchandise stores in the country for the first time in February 2019.

As customers have turned to their web browsers, shop vacancies are on the rise around the world, with big brands deserting even New York’s Fifth Avenue.

“Within the next five years, I think we’re going to see that having AR and 3D on your dot-com and beyond will be mandatory.”

The high street has been forced into a period of transformation. Now, forward-thinking companies are finding ways to adapt.

New realities in retail

In 2019, Charles Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, proclaimed that stock sizes for clothes would be gone within a decade. Body scanning and made-to-order items would replace the letters and numbers found on the labels of clothes, and products would no longer be found by scrolling through images or browsing shop floors. Instead, customers would select their products — a pair of shoes, a new coffee table, a snapback hat — and customize it to their own specifications. These clothes or items would be tried on or placed within a virtual scan of their room, all without leaving the couch.

Using 3D modeling and augmented reality (AR) — a technology that places computer-generated images onto the real world — Bergh’s vision is already possible.

One of the first sectors to take advantage of the nascent technology was the furniture industry. Leading retailers like Wayfair and IKEA invested early into 3D and AR, allowing customers to physically visualize their products inside their spaces. For Shrenik Sadalgi, the director of Research and Development at Wayfair Next — the arm of the furniture giant that uses technology to make shopping more seamless — adding the two technologies to its sales arsenal was an obvious choice for the company.

Wayfair’s customers can take advantage of two AR experiences. The first, View in Room 3D, lets users place an accurately sized piece of furniture into their room, twist and move it in the space, and even walk around it in real time. Room Planner 3D goes further, allowing customers to visualize the piece of furniture in their home even when they’re on the go.

“We’re letting customers capture the space first,” Sadalgi says of Room Planner 3D. “So you take a photo, and that photo is a very piece of rich information about your room. At a later point in time — maybe you’re on the subway, or maybe you’re at a friend’s house or whatever — you can pull up your room, and then you can add furniture as if you were there. So you don’t have to actually be in the space to plan your space.”

It’s not just homeware companies that have embraced the digital option. Augmented reality has found a natural fit in the beauty industry, and like major furniture retailers, bigger brands have been using the tech for several years. The experiences they offer continue to be refined as the technology improves. Leading players like L’Oréal, Sephora, Procter & Gamble, and more have been honing their version of the AR over time, offering customers a more interactive shopping experience.

For Lynda Pak, senior vice president at beauty powerhouse Estée Lauder, AR lets shoppers gain a familiarity with many of the products within its portfolio of 29 brands.

“AR is becoming a way for a consumer to be able to engage with a beauty advisor or makeup artist,” she says. “It may be tied in with, let’s say, a digital consultation. But if the consumer wants no live consultation whatsoever, [they] can just try the various shades on their own as well.

“The AR experiences that we have right now are really around virtual try-on for makeup,” she continues. “That encompasses eye, it encompasses foundation, it encompasses lip, and we also have skin diagnostic capabilities. The calibration that we’ve done is able to note if you’ve got some dry patches or red flares, or if you’re looking a little tired — it will highlight some of those skin concerns. When we go into haircare, we’re able to view the scalp and the condition of the hair close to the scalp, as well as further down to the ends. You’re able to see what you look like as a blonde, of what you may look like with an ombre. It’s a great way to get a sense of what the shade will look like.”

In both of these industries, as well as a number of others that rely on customization or fit, consumers are beginning to shop differently. Companies like Facebook have invested heavily in online transactions, encouraging more purchases in the digital realm.

Instagram now boasts its Shopping and Checkout options to allow businesses to advertise and complete transactions through the app, offering an alternative to website- or brand app-based shopping platforms — all with a potential customer base of over a billion. As buyers continue to explore new ways to make their shopping decisions, brands are increasingly focusing on how they present their products digitally.

Making the digital feel physical

Changes in retail have always been tied to developments in technology. The advent of the postal service inspired mail-order catalogs. Televisions created shopping channels. The internet ushered in the possibility of online shopping, and mobile phones — with their cameras — have been the launchpad for AR and 3D. Each leap creates more opportunity for shoppers to see the product how it really is — as if it was already on their body or in their homes.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Buzzy live voice chat app Clubhouse has confirmed that it has raised new funding – without revealing how much – in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz through the firm’s partner Andrew Chen. The app was reported to be raising at a $1 billion valuation in a report from The Information that landed just before this confirmation. While we try to track down the actual value of this round and the subsequent valuation of the company, what we do know is that Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get played, including subscriptions, tipping and ticket sales.

This funding round will also support a ‘Creator Grant Program’ being set up by Clubhouse, which will be used to “support emerging Clubhouse creators” according to the startup’s blog post. While the app has done a remarkable job attracting creator talent, including high-profile celebrity and political users, directing revenue towards creators will definitely help spur sustained interest, as well as more time and investment from new creators who are potentially looking to make a name for themselves on the platform, similar to YouTube and TikTok influencers before them.

Of course, adding monetization for users also introduces a method for Clubhouse itself to monetize. The platform is free to all users, and doesn’t yet offer any kind of premium plan or method of charging users, nor is it ad-supported. Adding ways for users to pay other users provides an opportunity for Clubhouse to retain a cut for its services.

The plans around monetization routes for creators appear to be relatively open-ended at this point, with Clubhouse saying it’ll be launching “first tests” around each of the three areas it mentions (tipping, tickets and subscriptions) over the “next few months.” It sounds like these could be similar to something like a Patreon built right into the platform. Tickets are a unique option that would go well with Clubhouse’s more formal roundtable discussions, and could also be a way that more organizations make use of the platform for hosting virtual events.

The startup also announced that it will be starting work on its Android app (it’s been iOS only for now) and that it will also invest in more backend scaling to keep up with demand, as well as support team growth and tools for detecting and prevuing abuse. Clubhouse has come under fire for its failure in regards to moderation and prevention of abuse in the past, so this aspect of its product development will likely be closely watched. The platform will also see changes to discovery aimed at surfacing relevant users, groups (‘clubs’ in the app’s parlance) and rooms.

During a regular virtual town hall the app’s founders host on the platform, CEO Paul Davison revealed that Clubhouse now has 2 million weekly active users. It’s also worth noting that Clubhouse says it now has “over 180 investors” in the company, which is a lot for a Series B – though many of those are likely small, independent investors with very little stake.

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SpaceX sets new record for most satellites on a single launch with latest Falcon 9 mission

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SpaceX has set a new all-time record for the most satellites launched and deployed on a single mission, with its Transporter-1 flight on Sunday. The launch was the first of SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions, in which it splits up the payload capacity of its rocket among multiple customers, resulting in a reduced cost for each but still providing SpaceX with a full launch and all the revenue it requires to justify lauding one of its vehicles.

The launch today included 143 satellites, 133 of which were from other companies who booked rides. SpaceX also launched 10 of its own Starlink satellites, adding to the already more than 1,000 already sent to orbit to power SpaceX’s own broadband communication network. During a launch broadcast last week, SpaceX revealed that it has begun serving beta customers in Canada and is expanding to the UK with its private pre-launch test of that service.

Customers on today’s launch included Planet Labs, which sent up 48 SuperDove Earth imaging satellites; Swarm, which sent up 36 of its own tiny IoT communications satellites, and Kepler, which added to its constellation with eight more of its own communication spacecraft. The rideshare model that SpaceX now has in place should help smaller new space companies and startups like these build out their operational on-orbit constellations faster, complementing other small payload launchers like Rocket Lab, and new entrant Virgin Orbit, to name a few.

This SpaceX launch was also the first to deliver Starlink satellites to a polar orbit, which is a key part of the company’s continued expansion of its broadband service. The mission also included a successful landing and recovery of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster, the fifth for this particular booster, and a dual recovery of the fairing halves used to protect the cargo during launch, which were fished out of the Atlantic ocean using its recovery vessels and will be refurbished and reused.

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Watch SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare rocket launch live, carrying a record-breaking payload of satellites

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SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank. Today’s attempt is scheduled for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) after a first try yesterday was cancelled due to weather. So far, weather looks much better for today.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 143 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) today.

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